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Saturday, 2 June, 2001, 00:07 GMT 01:07 UK
Exams stretch schools to the limit
By education correspondent, Mike Baker
It has been a tense time in the Baker household this past half-term.
Daughter number one is revising for school exams which start this week. Meanwhile daughter number two is indulging in post-exam relaxation as she took the national tests for 11 year-olds just before the holidays began.
I'm sure there have been similar tensions in hundreds of thousands of households as the belated arrival of good weather heralds the start of the GCSE and A level season.
For those taking exams, it is noses in books time. Or at least it should be.
But for all the other year groups, especially those like daughter number two who are now treading water before transferring to secondary school, the next couple of months can be rather a wasted time.
That is one of the reasons why it is disappointing that many educators have been quick to dismiss the latest suggestion for a change in the school year.
The current three term model has many shortcomings, not least during the exam season.
For a start, the major examinations in June coincide with the period of high pollen counts and misery for hay fever sufferers.
Second the moveable feast that is the Easter religious festival means the run up to exams is of variable length year to year.
Thirdly, once the exams are over, there is a 'dead' period for the month of July.
Some imaginative re-thinking of the school year could avoid these and other problems.
And that re-think is all the more urgent as it emerges that the first year of the new AS-Levels is proving to be 'chaotic', according to the National Association of Head Teachers.
This summer, as in past years, schools in England and Wales are already having to accommodate and supervise around five and a half million GCSE exam entries and a further 700,000 A level entries.
Now, on top of this, they must also oversee some three-quarters of a million AS-level entries.
It is stretching the school system to the limit. One head teacher, at a large school in Cardiff, says he is having to use 24 different rooms at his school to accommodate GCSEs, AS- and A-Levels.
The days when schools could simply make the assembly hall and gymnasium off limits for examinations are over.
Throw in the national tests at age 14 and you begin to see why some people complain about our school system being turned into an 'examinations factory' from the ages of 14 to 19.
Contrast this to the United States where, although state-wide testing is on the increase, there are no nation-wide examinations at 14, 16, 17 and 18 as we now have.
Daughter number one is 15 so this year she only faces school-based exams. She takes GCSEs next year and AS-levels the year after.
I am very relieved for her sake that there is still time for the new sixth form curriculum to be sorted out.
Meanwhile the 'guinea pigs' taking AS-levels next week deserve our sympathy and support.
At the National Association of Head Teachers' annual conference there was a widespread belief that this year's first-year sixth (Year 12 for those who keep up with such things) have had a raw deal.
Many have sacrificed time from their AS-levels in order to take the new Key Skills examinations which involve submitting coursework portfolios and sitting timed examinations in January, March or June.
Head teachers estimate the Key Skills courses have taken up to four hours a week.
This is valuable study time when students are racing to complete AS-level courses in just nine months from the moment they enter the Sixth Form.
There are many stories of schools only just completing AS syllabuses last week, leaving students virtually no time for revision.
Many have only managed this by fitting in extra lunchtime and 'twilight' teaching sessions.
Students have said how demoralised they feel that they are having to race through courses, with little time for wider studies, knowing they will not do themselves justice in the exams.
Of course, A levels have always been stressful and hard work. But have we lost something important by turning the first year sixth into a mad exam scramble?
Change is always hard to manage in education, whether it is the introduction of a new examination, a different curriculum or an alteration to the school calendar.
That is not a reason to resist all change. There are good intentions behind the broadening of sixth form studies.
But it is often a good idea to pilot change to check things work before rushing headlong into a new way of doing things.
And was it really a good idea to introduce the new Key Skills courses at the same time as the AS-level reform?
Independent schools, with their greater freedom from central directives, have largely ignored the Key Skills qualifications.
It is estimated only 2% of their pupils are taking them compared to some 60% of state school sixth formers.
With the universities apparently showing no interest in Key Skills qualifications, it looks as if the independent schools took the right decision.
It will be awfully hard on state school students if this is reflected in the relative AS-level scores.
Key skills are important. The broadening of the sixth form curriculum is a good idea.
But, unless there is a rethink of the burden of examination in the first year sixth we are in danger of losing more in quality of education than we might gain in width.
Mike Baker welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org although he cannot always answer individual e-mails.
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